Create a 21st-century Juneteenth menu, one recipe at a time


African Americans crave locally harvested USDA Prime Liberty from coast to coast in all its bitter sweetness.

On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and issued General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that all enslaved people are now free. For the more than 250,000 enslaved Black Texans, the impact of the order was not immediate; Some plantation owners withheld the information, delaying it until after another harvest season. But a year later, in 1866, unofficial June 16 celebrations began in Texas.

I celebrated June 16th with the brightest minds in the culinary field at a Soul Summit, a symposium founded by editor and author Toni Tipton-Martin in Austin, Texas that celebrates the history of African American nutrition; in New York, on a rooftop with my dearest friends; and in Georgia, tucked away in the woods with moisture enveloping guests. I’ve sat under my carport, with chipped paint overhead and mosquitoes buzzing around a plethora of foil-covered foods: plump, supermarket-bought Italian chicken sausages, buttery-sweet pound cakes, pork ribs dipped in smoke and spices, and summery salads of toasted Heirloom Tomatoes Aubergine.

I’ve hosted plated dinners with ceramic platters loaded with whole fried fish and summer bean salad, then carefully passed them around a table set with tea-dyed linen, accompanied by rum-infused red punch. One year I was hosting a pop-up at Pelzer’s Pretzels, a now-defunct small pretzel business, and serving up caramel-drizzled and Philadelphia-style pretzel chunks root beer trucks, and another time I was hosting a neighborhood dinner and farm tour for the Brownsville Community Culinary Center and Cafe. Guests enjoyed Gullah Geechee classics like red rice and okra stew. Each of these celebrations was a time to shut out the outside noises of the everyday world and enjoy food and freedom. Over the years, June 16th has become my annual tradition, even though I’m miles from the places I call home.

Like the Great Black Migration itself, Juneteenth traveled aboard trains and automobiles from his birthplace in Texas to every state in the Union where Jim Crow was not the de facto governor. Daniel Vaughn writes in a 2015 Texas Monthly Article about Juneteenth Barbecue: “Barbecue wasn’t the only item on the menu. Mid-June marked the start of the watermelon season in Texas, which also found a place on the table. The Galveston Daily News reported statewide celebrations in 1883, including one in San Antonio where “twenty-three wagons laden with watermelons…were destroyed with astonishing rapidity.” By 1933, the menu had been cemented, according to The Dallas Morning News. ‘Watermelon, barbecue and red lemonade are consumed in large quantities.’”

Hidden within the Juneteenth story are small moments of personal triumph that we will never know. Emancipation changed society as a whole, but how did it affect the lives of individuals? Noisemaker-worthy celebrations are often followed by quieter victories.

My great-grandfather George Taylor left Oconee, Georgia—a town nearly 10 miles south of the University of Georgia named for the Oconee branch of the Creek Indians, or Muskogean tribe—for a more prosperous future in Athens, Georgia and my grandmother’s aunts , two aunts and uncles mostly stayed nearby. Then Hubert “Boley” Taylor, a Korean War veteran, married Mildred. You gave birth to my mother.

My mother, Janis Marie Taylor, graduated from high school in 1972 and ran for the first time in that year’s presidential election (a victory her own mother never saw). She earned her living as a worker in a chicken factory. Cutting up chickens for more than forty hours a week; Quiet was a luxury. I probably do as many coffee breaks and rejuvenation breaks in one day as they do in a week. My lunch breaks can sometimes last two hours or more. My mother taught me how to rush; my experiences teach me that pausing is okay.

Still, I forget the urge to plow through the day and rush to the next. I stop.

In the stillness I connect with my whole self in a way my ancestors weren’t allowed to. No place was reserved for her; Their blue-collar jobs did not include a breastfeeding room, free voting time, an atmosphere to speak openly about fears, or hold a birthday dinner with cake and candles. I set my weekly intentions knowing that when the room is full and no one is listening, it is my responsibility to remember to fill my heart with gratitude to say the names of my ancestors.

Even on the days that are not marked as holidays, holidays, or special days, we should do special things for ourselves and those we care about. These little everyday traditions, these molecules of the ordinary, can have power and meaning if we let them. Recreational and nurturing rituals testify to what Juneteenth made possible, as do voting rights and separate buses. I want my son Garvey to embrace, feel and understand these rituals as important parts of Juneteenth’s legacy.

Recipes: Watermelon Ginger Beer | Very green coleslaw with grilled poblanos | Peach Molasses Chicken | Strawberry Sumac Cake

This article is an excerpt from “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations” by Nicole A. Taylor (Simon & Schuster, 2022).

Juneteenth is a great opportunity to support the growing number of black winemakers in the United States and around the world. The color red is associated with the 16th of June and this chicken dish with its sweet glaze pairs beautifully with a strong red wine. I would be particularly drawn to fruity red wines like Zinfandel, Grenache and Pinot Noir. California produces some excellent Grenache-based wines, full of fruit flavors but concentrated and understated. And many Zinfandels combine tangy fruit flavors with a manageable alcohol content, which means less than 15 percent for Zin. Brown Estate in Napa Valley produces excellent Zinfandel, and André Hueston Mack offers a selection of delicious Oregon wines under the Maison Noir label. ERIC ASIMOV


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